Chair man never bored

Justin Brake
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Using hand tools and centuries-old methods, Wayne Daley is making antiques for the future

Wayne Daley does something most people can't.

He builds 18th-century Windsor chairs.

On first consideration, this might not sound like much of a skill, but the nature of the hobby makes the Mount Pearl resident and jury member of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador a rare craftsman in Canada.

"What separates chairmakers from others," says Daley, sitting in one of his own living room chairs, "is they can make them from start to finish. It's the bending of the wood, the turning of the legs, the shaping of the seats."

Wayne Daley takes time to enjoy the finished product. Photo by Justin Brake/Special to The Telegram

Wayne Daley does something most people can't.

He builds 18th-century Windsor chairs.

On first consideration, this might not sound like much of a skill, but the nature of the hobby makes the Mount Pearl resident and jury member of the Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador a rare craftsman in Canada.

"What separates chairmakers from others," says Daley, sitting in one of his own living room chairs, "is they can make them from start to finish. It's the bending of the wood, the turning of the legs, the shaping of the seats."

Inspired

On a trip to Toronto six years ago, Daley read a magazine article that featured an Ontario fellow who had mastered the craft of building the chairs, so he contacted the man and has been attending his workshops every spring since, learning a new model of the chair each year.

"I'm lucky to have met this guy," he says. "I can make eight different forms of the chairs now."

The Windsor chair dates back to the 1700s when they became popular among the English, explains Daley. Then they were transported to the New World when England colonized America and were refashioned.

"Americans refined them and brought them to the form they're at," he says.

Sculpted finery

The distinguishing feature about Windsor chair-making is it is requires skills few people possess today, such as handcarving, drilling by eye - essentially, refining wood from its raw form - and doing all this using unique, old-fashioned tools, many of which were hand-crafted themselves.

"There's almost a wizardry to it. I can't get a machine and tell it to do this."

Outside Daley's workshop sit various logs in raw form.

He splits one lengthwise to achieve a continuous grain, one of the chair's most important features. It ensures strength and durability and often leads to a 100- to 150-year lifespan for the chairs, he says.

Inside the workshop, he shaves the wood to size with a drawknife. The pieces which need to be bent are steamed and must be re-shaped, often within minutes, he says, before they lose their pliability.

'No two are the same'

To make the legs, Daley places straight-grained blocks of red oak on his lathe and turns them to his desired shape.

"All the turnings are done by eye," he says. "No two are the same."

The seats are typically made from two-inch-thick slabs of softer woods (Daley's preference is pine), and shaped using various tools such as inshaves, compass planes and scrapers. Perhaps the most impressive part of crafting the seats is the drilling of the holes where the spindles will be inserted, requiring skilled hand-eye co-ordination.

"Making the parts is one thing, but then putting them together is another," Daley says, explaining how the construction of the chair is as integral to the process as the woodwork.

The tops of the legs are tapered, he adds, which allows them to gradually stabilize into the seat.

"The (leg) goes up in the chair with time and pressure, so they actually get stronger. There is a little glue involved but invariably it may fail after a while," Daley says, emphasizing the significance of the tapered leg structure.

Once assembled, the chairs are finished with milk paint, a nontoxic coating that comes in powder and must be diluted with water.

The most traditional Windsor chair colours are black and green, says Daley. But judging by the ones in his kitchen and basement, there are a slew of other colours the paint comes in.

"The milk paint absorbs into the wood," he explains. "Over time it becomes weathered, giving it that antique look.

"That's what people are paying the money for."

Marketing

To date, Daley says, he has sold a handful of chairs locally, including one which will be on display in The Rooms at a future exhibit.

"My challenge is I need to market them," he says, contemplating whether or not there could be a demand for them on the island.

"I'm at a stage where I've developed a confidence to build a good chair."

Each one takes about 40 hours to make, he says, which, with their distinct quality, justifies the chairs' value to many buyers.

"What people are buying is an heirloom-quality product ... not (something) that's going to break in four or five years."

For more information on Windsor chairs, or to order a chair, contact Daley at 745-9778 or by e-mail at waynedaley@nl.rogers.com.

Organizations: Craft Council of Newfoundland and Labrador

Geographic location: Windsor, Mount Pearl, Canada Toronto Ontario England America The Rooms

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